Friday, January 05, 2018

Moral Objectivity and Moral Realism

In the paper that I am writing on Rosalind Hursthouse's theory of right action, I am going to disagree with her on what she calls a second spring of human action - reason or rationality.

I am going to side with David Hume. Desires provide the only "spring of action" - nothing is an end except that desire makes it so. The second type of spring that she writes about does not exist.

However, the thesis that such a spring does not exist - at least in the way that I say it does not exist - has been equated with the denial of the existence of moral values altogether - moral anti-realism or moral subjectivism.

I disagree with the use of these terms.

It is not that I disagree with the thesis. I simply think that expressing the thesis in these terms generates unnecessary confusion.

So, I am going to want to say that my denial of the existence of this "second spring" is compatible with the objectivity of morality and moral realism. It is simply a denial that moral claims are claims of intrinsic prescrptivity.

Specifically . . .

In saying that a second type of “spring of action” does not exist I will be following a path much like that of J.L. Mackie in Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. Mackie starts his book with the proposition, “There are no objective values.” In place of Mackie’s “Argument from Queerness,” I intend to substitute Sharon Street’s, A Darwinian Dilemma for Moral Realism.”

However, in doing this, I am going to reject their terminology. What the phrase, “There are no objective values” and the term “moral anti-realism” means on the street is something quite different from what it means in the philosophy lecture hall, and I think this difference is quite destructive.

On the street, these terms imply that one cannot legitimately criticize the racist or the terrorist or anybody whose views are different from one’s own because all such views are merely differences of opinion - with no opinion being objectively better than any other. Protests on the part of philosophers that this is not what they mean are irrelevant - not unless they want to fund a massive public duration campaign to make their special meanings a part of the common use of moral language.

Morality, unlike the special and specific terms of some sciences, cannot be effectively limited to the classroom or laboratory. It is a public practice. It is unwise to use a private jargon that, when released on the public, is more likely to generate confusion and error than to serve any useful purpose.

I have described a case in which the proposition, “People generally have strong reasons to promote a universal aversion to causing pain to others” is objectively true. In that world, the proposition was true before any agent was born, remains true regardless of the beliefs and desires that the agent may acquire in life, and will remain true after the agent dies. Even if a particular agent would lose the aversion to pain, the proposition that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote a universal aversion to causing pain remains true.

This is not an appeal to some sort of fictionalism where we must all embrace a falsehood as if true to realize some social good. The proposition that a desire tends to fulfill or thwart other desires is an objectively true statement. Its truth depends on the existence and content of those other desires. It might be true in the context of one set of desires and false in the context of a different set. However, these facts do not prevent the statement from being true. The fact that, in certain circumstances, the statement, “I am in Colorado” could be false does not change the fact that it is true, at least as I write this.

In short, I am going to agree with Mackie and Street. However, while Mackie says that there are no objective values, I am going to say that there is no intrinsic prescriptivity. While Street claims to be offering a Darwinian dilemma for moral realism, I am going to say that she is offering a Darwinian dilemma for intrinsic moral prescriptivity realism. But I will hold that moral values are objective, and that some actions really are wrong. I am simply not going to ground their objectivity or reality on intrinsic prescriptive properties.

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